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What’s Blooming in Paradise? (A gardner’s journey)

By Staff | Jul 9, 2010

Plant Subject: Ponytail Palm (Beaucarnea recurvata)

Photo 1

First impression: Strange looking plant with a skinny trunk…over-sized, swollen (looks like an elephant’s foot) base tapering to a slender top. At the top leaves emerge as long, skinny and grassy tufs (aka ponytail). The tiny creamy yellow blooms have an aura of glow and remind me of a palm inflorescence. You can see this unique bloom at the Botanical Gardens of the Sanibel Moorings.

Photo 2

Observations: Can be planted alone or grouped together and about 15 feet tall half of its 30 foot maximum. These bases are all grown together but solo can reach 12 feet across! You will detect a very faint sweet fragrance in the air and notice bees taking advantage of the nectar. I routinely remove the smaller new tufs, (which can be planted for new ponytails) of ponytails on some of the trunks. I prefer the single tuft at the top on the plant and not several distractions of new growth that will occur if they are left. In a garden I would really want to draw attention to the base, by planting around it never covering it- it is surreal. Upon further investigation I discovered that it is not a palm at all. It’s a caudiciform. This classification consists of slow growing succulent plants that form a bulbous water storage organ at their bases. They rely more on their large storage base for water than their small root systems. Drought tolerant, and does well in full sun. It luminescent blooms occur in paradise in the summer months. The dark green, grass-like leaves are one inch wide by six-foot long. The unusual light grey colored bark has dark grey grooved and patterns that really resemble an elephant’s foot. It is a very slow growing non native species, whose hails from Mexico.

Pros & Cons:

n Long grassy leaves very tropical look and weekly clean up of older brown leaves

n Drought tolerant and easily overwatered – which can lead to decay/rot

n Always interesting to look at and you may get weary of explaining what it is

n Insect damage minimal and non-native status

n Blooming brings in the bees

n Wind resistant and unable to predict which direction it will grow

n Some salt tolerance and tender at 30 degrees Fahrenheit.

Conclusion: WOW-surreal, exotic and what a conversation starter as a specimen tree or houseplant. Just its nickname of elephants foot conjures up visions of the tropics. Don’t want to miss this bloomer!

(Anita Marshall is the garden designer and conducts weekly Wednesday Garden Tours at 9 a.m. at the Botanical Gardens at the Sanibel Moorings Resort www.sanibelmoorings.com . In her spare time she also is a volunteer with Lee County Master Gardeners, North American Butterfly Association, Bird Patrol, Lakes Park Botanic Garden Committee and SCCF Native Plant Nursery. Email her with questions, comments, & mystery plants at gardens@sanibelmoorings.com.)